Commentary

How much is too much 'have at it?'

Updated: May 14, 2011, 1:45 AM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

DOVER, Del. -- So what exactly does "boys, have at it" mean? What does probation mean? And where is the line that NASCAR won't allow drivers to cross before it takes points away?

Tony Stewart wants to know.

Kevin Harvick wants to know.

Jimmie Johnson wants to know.

I want to know.

Many in the Sprint Cup garage want to know outside of Kyle Busch, who to nobody's surprise is taking the opposite stance of Harvick, who when asked Friday at Dover International Speedway whether the two would get along said, "That probably won't ever happen."

Busch, by the way, later referred to Harvick as "two-faced."

All we know for sure is that you can't push one car into the pit road wall after a race with officials and crewmen in the vicinity -- as Busch did to Harvick's car after Saturday night's Cup race at Darlington -- without receiving at least a four-race probation and $25,000 fine.

So does that mean retaliation on the track will be tolerated no matter what, as it was with Juan Pablo Montoya and Ryan Newman the week before at Richmond? Does that mean drivers can throw punches inside the NASCAR hauler -- as Newman apparently did to Montoya -- and get away with it?

Does that mean drivers can take a swing at drivers who are inside a car on pit road as long as the driver in the car doesn't respond by pushing the empty car into the pit road wall?

Does that mean drivers on probation can say what they want about one another even though they can't touch one another on the track? OK, after listening to Harvick call Busch a "liar" and "spineless," that one is answered.

But how far is too far?

Inquiring minds want to know.

"We don't know," two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart said. "I've been driving in this series 13 years, and I don't know what's acceptable and what's not. What's the penalty? We know what's right and wrong, but sometimes you sit and weigh the option of is the penalty worth it?

"So at least let us know what it is so we have the option of making the decision."

Before boys were allowed to have at it, we had some idea what the penalties would be. Get caught cheating, and you're docked 25 to 50 points or, in the extreme of Clint Bowyer last season, 150 because his winning car was outside the tolerances at New Hampshire.

[+] EnlargeTony Stewart
Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCARTony Stewart would like a little clarity on any lines NASCAR decides to draw on driver interaction.

Publicly call somebody a "piece of s---" as Robby Gordon did Michael Waltrip in 2005, and you'll get in the neighborhood of a 25-point deduction and fine.

Now nobody knows for sure what will set off NASCAR's penalty button. Denny Hamlin was fined $50,000 last season because of things he said on Twitter about questionable debris cautions.

NASCAR has a lot of leeway with 12-4-A of the rulebook that covers "actions detrimental to stock car racing." So what's detrimental? It's purely subjective.

There's a reason. NASCAR doesn't want you to figure it out. Officials don't want to lock themselves into the same box they try to lock crew chiefs into on the car. They're afraid that by putting something in black and white, it would be a step back to the pre-"boys, have at it" era in 2009, when drivers were criticized for not showing their personality and the sport was called stale.

"You wish it could be more simple than it is, and it's not," said NASCAR vice president for competition Robin Pemberton.

But couldn't it be? Just put it in black and white: one point for taking chairman Brian France's name in vain, two points for drawing blood from a fellow competitor, three points for hooking a competitor in the right rear and spinning him on the straightaway.

You get the picture.

So when I asked Pemberton what it would take to get docked points, he said, "We'll let you know when we get there."

He wasn't being arrogant. It's just the way the governing body thinks, whether that's an edict from France to help television ratings and attendance or NASCAR truly believes that's the right path.

"There's a lot of things that enter into it," Pemberton said. "It's not first-and-10. It's not 100 yards long. It's not so many feet to the base. It's not any of those things. There's mechanical issues. There's 43 competitors on the track at the same time. There's not just one instance.

"It's not a play that's called and a holding call."

But drivers still have the right to know within some reason what's allowed and not allowed on the track, just as they know what they can and can't take without facing consequences from a drug test.

"If you do this wrong, what's the penalty?" Stewart said. "Let us know. I think we've got a right to know what we're up against."

It's that way in other sports. In the NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball, it's usually an automatic ejection for throwing a punch with a fine almost certain to follow.

Not that other leagues don't have issues with the penalties. The NFL was in an uproar last season over interpretation of helmet-to-helmet hits because they were so subjective and inconsistent.

Pemberton says drivers know the rules and where the lines are drawn. He says Stewart knows the rules.

"He's been in the hauler before," Pemberton said. "He knows when he's crossed [the line] before. They all do. We have to rely on them to handle themselves accordingly out there.

"There's too many different things, and if we over-regulated everything, it would be a shame. We hope that competitors that step over the line too many times won't ruin it for everybody. That's the fine line we have to straddle right now."

[+] EnlargeRobin Pemberton
Todd Warshaw/Getty ImagesRobin Pemberton says NASCAR is trying to be careful not to over-regulate the sport.

It is a fine line, but there can be fine lines with specific rules without killing the excitement of the sport, without forcing drivers to bury their personalities for fear of ticking off a sponsor.

NASCAR can't wait until somebody is seriously injured to draw the line.

"For me, it's definitely to the point where it's a little bit confusing," Harvick said.

Harvick referred to the first major incident under the "boys, have at it" theme when Carl Edwards wrecked Brad Keselowski intentionally last season at Atlanta. Edwards was parked for the remainder of the race.

Montoya wasn't parked for retaliating against Newman at Richmond two weeks ago. Busch wasn't parked for retaliating against Harvick at Darlington.

Consistency shouldn't be this hard.

"I understand that it's evolving, but from a driver's standpoint, you really don't know 100 percent how it works," Harvick said.

Harvick is even more confused that the probation and fine he and Busch received was for what happened on pit road because it endangered pit crew members and officials. But the probation, the drivers were told, keeps them from doing on the track what other drivers apparently will be allowed to do until they are placed on probation.

And what if Busch or Harvick wrecks the other after the probation ends? Does that mean they go back on probation for a longer period?

"There just has to be consistency," Harvick said. "I can race either way. We can flip each other over. I don't mind wrecking. I don't mind getting wrecked. I don't mind eye for an eye. I don't mind any of that, but just tell me what the rules are.

"Explain to me what the penalty is if you are going to hook somebody in the middle of the straightaway, if you are going to spin them out. If you are going to retaliate, what is the penalty? Tell me what the penalty is."

That seems fair, but NASCAR doesn't seem willing to budge, and Busch, for one, is OK with that.

"It seems like they allow us to police ourselves pretty simple out there," he said. "To me, it's not a gray area. It's pretty simple. It's black-and-white."

But if it's black-and-white, why are there seemingly more questions than answers right now? The answer is simple: because NASCAR wants it that way, because with questions there is intrigue, and with intrigue there is drama and excitement.

"There has to be some guidelines on where it all is," Harvick said. "You hear the upper brass talk about wanting to do things more like the NFL or this or that, but you have to be consistent in order to do that."

So what does it all mean?

Maybe we'll never know for sure.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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